Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

Harvard economist explains why spending cuts are better than tax increases

From Investors Business Daily, an editorial by Dr. Alberto Alesina of Harvard University, that explains which approach to reducing debt and deficits works best. Is it cutting spending and reducing regulation? Or is it continuing to borrow and spend, and raising taxes?

Let’s see what Dr. Alesina says:

The evidence speaks loud and clear: When governments reduce deficits by raising taxes, they are indeed likely to witness deep, prolonged recessions. But when governments attack deficits by cutting spending, the results are very different.

In 2011, the International Monetary Fund identified episodes from 1980 to 2005 in which 17 developed countries had aggressively reduced deficits. The IMF classified each episode as either “expenditure-based” or “tax-based,” depending on whether the government had mainly cut spending or hiked taxes.

When Carlo Favero, Francesco Giavazzi and I studied the results, it turned out that the two kinds of deficit reduction had starkly different effects: cutting spending resulted in very small, short-lived — if any — recessions, and raising taxes resulted in prolonged recessions.

[...]The obvious economic challenge to our contention is: What keeps an economy from slumping when government spending, a major component of aggregate demand, goes down? That is, if the economy doesn’t enter recession, some other component of aggregate demand must necessarily be rising to make up for the reduced government spending — and what is it? The answer: private investment.

Our research found that private-sector capital accumulation rose after the spending-cut deficit reductions, with firms investing more in productive activities — for example, buying machinery and opening new plants. After the tax-hike deficit reductions, capital accumulation dropped.

The reason may involve business confidence, which, we found, plummeted during the tax-based adjustments and rose (or at least didn’t fall) during the expenditure-based ones. When governments cut spending, they may signal that tax rates won’t have to rise in the future, thus spurring investors (and possibly consumers) to be more active.

Our findings on business confidence are consistent with the broader argument that American firms, though profitable, aren’t investing or hiring as much as they might right now because they’re uncertain about future fiscal policy, taxation and regulation.

But there’s a second reason that private investment rises when governments cut spending: the cuts are often just part of a larger reform package that includes other pro-growth measures.

In another study, Silvia Ardagna and I showed that the deficit reductions that successfully lower debt-to-GDP ratios without sparking recessions are those that combine spending reductions with such measures as deregulation, the liberalization of labor markets (including, in some cases, explicit agreement with unions for more moderate wages) and tax reforms that increase labor participation.

Let’s be clear: This body of evidence doesn’t mean that cutting government spending always leads to economic booms. Rather, it shows that spending cuts are much less costly for the economy than tax hikes and that a carefully designed deficit-reduction plan, based on spending cuts and pro-growth policies, may completely eliminate the output loss that you’d expect from such cuts. Tax-based deficit reduction, by contrast, is always recessionary.

UPDATE: George Mason University economists agree: debt is wrecking the economy and the right way to stop it is with spending cuts, not tax increases. In order to grow the economy we need a balanced approach of spending cuts and tax cuts.


The United States’ high levels of debt are already contributing to slower economic growth and decreased competitiveness. These impacts will worsen if the nation’s debt-to-GDP levels continue to rise, as is currently projected.

[...]High levels of government debt undermine U.S. competitiveness in several ways, including crowding out private investment, raising costs to private businesses, and contributing to both real and perceived macroeconomic instability.

[...]Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff examine historical data from 40 countries over 200 years and find that when a nation’s gross national debt exceeds 90% of GDP, real growth was cut by one percent in mild cases and by half in the most extreme cases. This result was found in both developing and advanced economies.

Similarly, a Bank for International Settlements study finds that when government debt in OECD countries exceeds about 85% of GDP, economic growth slows.

[...]While fundamental tax reform is required to correct a host of structural inefficiencies, policymakers can quickly reduce the U.S. statutory rate of 35% to the OECD average rate of 26% or less.

That’s what research tells us. But that’s not what we are doing, because we voted for Barack Obama.

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